How Small Stresses Snowball

How Small Stresses Snowball

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por Rob Cross

Resumen:

If you’ve ever felt completely overwhelmed, the culprit may be microstress: those small moments of stress that seem manageable on their own but accumulate over time to derail you. One of the challenges of microstress is that it’s triggered by some of the people you are closest with in your personal and professional life. Moreover, a microstress can be difficult to detect in the moment and can multiply over time. These three case studies describe the dynamics of three kinds of microstress — and offer advice on overcoming them.

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Microstresses — small moments of stress that seem manageable on their own but accumulate over time — are often hard to detect until you’re completely overwhelmed. These three case studies can help you understand how microstresses start, what they feel like when you’re in the thick of them, and how to prevent them from spiraling out of control.

Each case is a composite of common experiences we identified based on our interviews with more than 300 people from 30 global companies between 2019 and 2021. Our research describes 14 different microstresses, which fall into three categories; each case represents a microstress from one of these categories.

Francesca is the project lead on an upcoming product launch and is preparing a presentation for stakeholders. She works with several team members, but only two report to her. She’s also behind on her email.

Francesca’s team was heading into the final weeks of an 18-month project when she was hit with an unwelcome surprise: an email informing her that, due to a supply-chain change, the product would not deliver the profit margin that had been promised to the head of finance.

A woman, Francesca, stares worriedly at her handheld device and wonders How could this have happened? The next panel, captioned She exchanged frantic messages with her team, is a close-up of her hand hovering over the device, which is showing a flurry of messages.
Anuj Shrestha

After some back-and-forth, it became clear to Francesca that the reasons for the slip were small, but they had compounded. Several team members had dropped the ball on some of the finer details of the project for varying, and often legitimate, reasons. Ken had been out of the office tending to his dad in the hospital. Scott had run into technical issues. (In fact, she’d actually heard him swearing at his computer one day.) She didn’t want to appear petty by calling people to task over small missteps. But now her workload was doubling to take care of all these “small” issues.

Francesca sits at her desk with her hand covering her eyes, suggesting a headache. Her computer pings with multiple messages. She is thinking about team member Scott and remembering when he yelled at his computer, I've lost days of work! I don't know where it saved my files, but they're gone.
Anuj Shrestha

She quickly realized that she’d have to set aside some of her other responsibilities to try to figure out where the mistakes had been made. She worried that, in her haste to catch up, she might make new mistakes. She didn’t know how she was going to fix this problem.

What should Francesca do to reduce her stress and get the project back on track?

  • Diagnose the problem quickly to find solutions. Francesca set up a meeting with her team to stop the spiral of panic emails and understand exactly what had happened and why — and figure out what to do next.
  • Hold people accountable. Small misses by several people led to big problems, all of which fell to Francesca to handle. To address this, the team decided to create a norm around personal responsibility by using a “five-minute whiteboard” in every meeting to nail down clear to-dos before everyone left the room.
  • Incorporate backups. The team created a buddy system, pairing employees on certain tasks so there would be two people looking for brewing problems and providing support to each other. This approach also ensured no single person held all the information about any aspect of the project.

Dan is a long-tenured supervisor of seven, and his team coordinates projects with outside vendors. A new manager intent on change in his department has come in, but Dan wants to protect his employees from too much change, especially the kind that would move them out of the group, or out of a job. Suddenly, he finds himself second-guessing everything they do.

Dan prided himself on being a strong advocate for his team. In fact, he had been at his financial services company for nearly 20 years, and he and his direct reports had survived multiple restructurings and rounds of layoffs.

But after the latest managerial shuffle, it wasn’t clear that Dan and his team could carry on as they had before. His new manager, Priya, billed herself as a “change agent” and, in recent check-ins, had casually asked questions that suggested she wasn’t happy with the status quo. She seemed intent on both cutting costs and implementing technical solutions in what Dan considered to be a relationship-based arena.

A man, Dan, holding a tablet is standing facing his new manager, Priya. Carlos, he's pretty old school, right? Priya asks. In the next frame, Priya is walking out of the room, and the frame tightens on Dan's worried expression. Wait, was she being fair? he thinks. He had come to rely on Carlos to call in favors and cajole contractors to meet deadlines.
Anuj Shrestha

“Carlos, he’s pretty old-school, right?” Priya said offhandedly as they were walking through the org chart together. The intent was clear: He might not fit on this team anymore. Wait, was she being fair? Dan thought. He had come to rely heavily on Carlos to call in favors and cajole contractors to get work done under tight deadlines. Priya also seemed to be targeting Steph, who was the most organized person in the department and handled more than her share of administrative tasks. But her tendency to stay quiet in group meetings seemed to make Priya infer that she wasn’t capable of more. Dan left his meeting with Priya worried about his team — and his own future at the firm.

He started second-guessing himself. Should he go to bat for Carlos and Steph? Were they working hard enough?

Dan is sitting up in bed with his laptop open on the nightstand and his phone in his hand. The phone is showing multiple messages being sent. The caption reads, Dan began obsessing over everything his team did, asking to be briefed on daily work.
Anuj Shrestha

Dan began spending an inordinate amount of time thinking about how to improve his team’s image. He asked to be briefed on daily work, stepped in to help them finish projects, and overcommunicated with other departments to ensure they felt that his people were responsive. He obsessed over everything they did, how it would appear to Priya, and whether they were taking this all seriously enough.

How could Dan help his staff gain confidence, build their capabilities, and protect themselves from layoffs without stressing himself and the team out?

  • Create shared accountability. Dan stopped trying to do everything, which was exhausting him and causing anxiety among his employees. Instead, he gave them a vision and a framework for what needed to be done and started letting them figure it out for themselves. He scheduled meetings for 50 minutes to create space for giving — and seeking — quick feedback so that his team would feel responsible for their own work and performance.
  • Coach for independence. At first it was challenging for Dan to hold the line. He reminded himself, It’s OK if this takes them longer to figure out than it would take me. He recognized that his team would never step up if he kept stepping in. So he began providing real-time feedback when questions were raised and made connections between his employees and key vendors, but he let them manage the process themselves. This helped his team build confidence and lightened his own workload.
  • Allow controlled failures to spur learning. Dan never abandoned his team; no one had to “sink or swim.” But he did allow them to learn through experience. He decided that his team could learn from the pain of minor missteps, and they’d be better able to spot — and sidestep — them in the future.

Azzam is a manager at an insurance provider. He is inheriting talent from multiple teams after layoffs and a restructuring and is trying to learn the company culture while earning his team’s trust.

Azzam’s new role at a new company was more challenging than he anticipated. The group he was tasked to oversee was formed from the remnants of three separate units, with three new unit leaders reporting to him.

A man, Azzam, stands in the foreground looking confident. Behind him are four figures facing in his direction, as if they are ready to follow him. The caption reads, Azzam was a pro at leading large teams of software developers. In the next frame, Azzam stands in the same spot, but now his expression is downcast. Behind him, the same four figures have turned their backs to him. The caption reads, But after layoffs and a reorganization, trust across the group was very low.
Anuj Shrestha

The three leaders were busy trying to help their employees make sense of the new structure and to assure them that the layoffs were over with. Because Azzam had entered the company during this stressful transition period, he didn’t know how to insert himself into meetings and conversations in a way that would reassure people he was on their side.

The left side of the illustration is a close-up of the upper portion of Azzam’s face, who is looking straight ahead at the viewer. The right side depicts the scene he is remembering: Azzam and a male colleague stand in front of a water cooler; each wears an awkward expression. The caption reads, When he bumped into developers in the elevator or at the water cooler, the conversations felt superficial, and his colleagues scuttled away as quickly as possible.
Anuj Shrestha

When he bumped into developers in the elevator or at the watercooler, the conversations felt superficial and his colleagues scuttled away as quickly as possible. Team updates with his three direct reports were positive but high-level. Any time he tried to dig into deeper conversations, he was met with one-word answers. Efforts to connect personally fell flat: His direct reports were guarded, given the recent shake-up, and he rarely had contact with lower-level employees.

He worried that his communication skills were lacking; that he wasn’t displaying enough empathy; that he couldn’t give advice on how to move forward and get on with the work without invalidating the trauma and stress of the reorg and layoffs. At the same time, he himself was still onboarding, spending parts of each day learning the culture, language, and rhythm of this new company.

Azzam had fantastic experience for this role — most recently having led a large team of software developers — but he felt off-balance here. In his old company, people trusted him with anything, because he’d always looked out for their best interests and had cultivated relationships with them. His new team didn’t know what he was capable of doing. He started to question whether he was in fact a good fit for this job.

How could Azzam gain control and build trust among his fractured team?

  • Experiment with ways to get candid feedback. First, Azzam started holding a weekly town hall, where all his people were invited to make suggestions and ask questions. Initially the developers were very reserved and overly polite. But by organizing them into small groups and creating an anonymous “ask any question” system, he began to spur more challenging and serious questions around the future of their jobs, how the company would regain profitability, and what value Azzam could bring to the team. By taking immediate action on some items — and communicating clearly on others he could not control — people started to see him as capable and on their side.
  • Find ways to connect your old role with your new one. Azzam was able to draw parallels between what he had done at his last company and the challenges facing his new one. He explained how they all fit into the new organization’s plans, described the steps he had taken so far to protect and advance the group, and presented concrete examples of these steps as the months wore on. As his team saw the relevance of his prior experience, they became more comfortable with him and started to turn to him for counsel and support rather than questioning him in one-off conversations.
  • Build trust proactively. Azzam started connecting with small groups of developers over lunches, which helped him respond on a personal level when challenges arose. He also invested considerable effort into his relationships with his three direct reports, both professionally and personally. When they needed resources, he helped them to get what they needed quickly. When they encountered problems with outside units, he attended meetings to back them up. In the end, Azzam’s ability to build his reports’ trust in him trickled down to the group more broadly. The role transformed from being highly stressful to fulfilling and energizing.
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